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Packing backpacks with more than just homework

Hunger in Goodhue County seems to be a growing problem.

Last month, the number of households enrolled in food assistance programs hit a record high. In fact, the number of households needing help providing meals is more than five times larger than it was 10 years ago.

At Sunnyside Elementary School, the number of students enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs has nearly doubled in five years - from 22 percent of all students in 2005 to 40 percent in 2010, the Minnesota Department of Education reports.

Now, a United Way pilot program called Packing for the Weekend is working to curb hunger and help families with children enrolled at Sunnyside get food on the table.

Each week, bags packed with food that is nutritious and easy to prepare are discreetly placed in children's locker so they take one home to their families.

"The younger children were so proud of helping their families; there's no embarrassment," said Maureen Nelson, marketing manager at the United Way of Goodhue, Wabasha and Pierce Counties.

Patti Roberts, principal at Sunnyside, said the school is able to provide nutritious lunches and breakfasts for students during the week. "But what about the weekends?" she said.

Nelson said she first saw a program like Packing for the Weekend at River Falls. She knew there was need in Red Wing. Implementing it "looked pretty easy for us here," she said.

The program kicked off at Sunnyside Elementary in January. Letters were sent home to every family in the school, and those families interested in participating had to go through an application process, Roberts said.

The United Way had funding to provide food for 30 families. They were selected on a first-come, first-served basis, though Roberts said demand for the program pretty much met supply.

"Thirty was about the number of families that were interested in participating," she said.

Each Thursday, volunteers from the community pack enough food for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks into bags so they're ready to be taken home by the children Friday afternoons. The Red Wing High School Key Club members packed the bags for the first week and are now in charge of taking inventory of the food.

Volunteers from Red Wing Shoe Co, church groups and ProAct also have spent time packing bags.

"The idea that there might be children and families who don't have enough to eat, that's a concept that we would like to have some impact on," said Sally Ogren, director of programs and services for ProAct of Red Wing and Zumbrota.

Most of the food comes from the Channel One Food Shelf in Rochester, Nelson said.

Sturdiwheat Foods has donated enough pancake mix for each family to get a supply each month through the end of the program in June.

Things like bread, milk and eggs are provided through EconoFoods vouchers. Barrels also have been set up at Red Wing's two EconoFoods stores so that shoppers drop off food donations.

"We're seeing barrel donations pick up. We're hoping to rely on donations more," Nelson said.

Nelson said coordinators make sure the food is easy to prepare and that it is light enough to be carried home by the children. More importantly, she said, they make sure it's good for people.

"We do want this to be nutritionally sound, not just empty calories," Nelson said.

Right now, the program is set to run through the end of the school year. At that time, Nelson said that they will reassess costs and the need in the community.

"It looks like we'll be going into fall; it's not for sure," she said.

But for now, the program seems to be filling a need that goes beyond just filling empty stomachs.

"We hope to ensure a healthier group of children," Roberts said. "Healthy children are ready to learn."

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.